Diarrhoea. The runs. The squits. The “insert funny name here”. Diarrhoea is funny, right? Because diarrhoea is something that you get from a bad kebab or some dodgy prawns. Because it is curable; not fatal; benign. It can be all those things, but only if your surroundings are not continually contaminated with the faecal particles that probably gave you the diarrhoea in the first place. Four in ten people in the world (2.6 billion) live with no sanitation whatsoever. When there’s no good containment – a toilet, or a pit latrine will do – faecal particles will be tramped on by people’s feet and carried on their fingers into food and water, with horrible consequences. Diarrhoea is the second biggest killer of children under five in the world. It kills more children than HIV/Aids or malaria. A child dies of those banal squits every 15 seconds.
So it is good news that the World Health Organisation this month recommended that vaccines for rotavirus be standard for children in the developing world. Rotavirus does not cause all diarrhoea, but it causes a lot of it. Instead of a single vaccine dose, however, harried nurses may have to give several, as diarrhoea makes it difficult for a child to retain anything. Diarrhoea is the reason you can have a malnourished child in a well-fed family. Because human faeces can carry 50 communicable diseases, they are an efficient weapon of mass destruction. Half of the hospital beds in sub-Saharan Africa are filled with people suffering from what are generally known as water-related diseases. Actually, they’re shit-related diseases.
A couple of years ago, readers of the British Medical Journal voted the toilet the best medical advance of the past 200 years, over penicillin and the pill. They knew that before the flush toilet became the norm in the 19th century, one in two children in London died before the age of five. With toilets, sewers and hand-washing with soap, child mortality dropped dramatically. Today, we in the developed world take these things for granted. We do not give much thought to the women who must get up at 4am in darkness, trek to a nearby bush or field, and try to do their business risking rape and snakebites. It can be easy to ignore, even when you live among it.
I have met countless Indians, who live in a country where 700 million people have no choice but to do open defecation, who claim never to have seen anyone toileting in public. Yet visit any Indian – or Indonesian, or Vietnamese, or Malawian – village, and along the roads you will see men and women, elderly and young, squatting by the roadside, the women trying and failing to keep both their faces and backsides covered for modesty’s sake. “Before, they would have been jumping up at every passing car,” my Indian companion told me. “Now there’s too much traffic. They’d be up and down like a yo-yo.”
Open defecation, and its concomitant diseases, is not just unpleasant. It also costs the world a fortune. Last year, the World Bank calculated that poor sanitation cost Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam between 1.4 and 7.2 per cent of GDP (not to mention the girls who do not go to school because there is no private latrine; or the mothers who cannot work because they are trekking into the bushes for privacy). Yet sanitation is the most cost-effective disease prevention tool we have. The World Bank economist Guy Hutton has estimated that investing $1 in sanitation saves $7 in healthcare costs and labour days that aren’t lost. When Peru had a cholera outbreak in 1991, losses from tourism and agricultural revenue were three times greater than the total money spent on sanitation in the previous decade.
Yet, as Fatal Neglect, a recent report by WaterAid demonstrated, money continues to flow towards more fashionable diseases and causes. In Madagascar, for example, 0.1 per cent of the population has HIV/Aids, and UNAids found there were too few Aids deaths to estimate. Yet HIV/Aids receives five times more funding than sanitation, though diarrhoea kills 14,000 Madagascan children every year. Antiretroviral therapies, the most common prevention tool against Aids, costs $922 per Daly (Disability-Adjusted Life Year, a standard health-prevention unit of calculation). Sanitation and hygiene promotion costs $11 and $3 respectively. By any measure, sanitation is a bargain.
Sanitation activists do not just look wistfully at the money flowing into HIV/Aids. They also see funds gushing into clean water supplies, an easier cause to sell and publicise. Water and sanitation budgets are usually a pittance (often 0.1 per cent of GDP), and of that, 90 per cent goes on clean water supplies. I have lost count of how many celebrities have put their names to clean water charities, happily photographed in front of a bright, shiny new tap, preferably with a photogenic child nearby. A laudable cause, but a clean water supply reduces disease by 20 per cent, while a latrine can reduce it by 40 per cent.
In a slum not far from Calcutta, I met Sandya Barui. She was 60 (and looked 80), but had dug her own latrine pit and built her own superstructure from spare tin and banana leaves. Before that, she had had to do her business in the banana fields behind her home, and it was “sinful”. Children would come and look at you as you squatted, she said. And she was spending 100 rupees ($2.50) a month on medicine, which was 100 rupees more than she had.
Then some visitors came to the slum and asked for a tour, and at the end they asked to see where people went for open defecation. Such shame! Then they asked people to estimate how many truck-loads of shit they were leaving in the open. It was a shock, Sandya said – as it was when people noticed that a plate of excrement had been brought to the meeting place and the flies were hopping merrily from the shit to the plate of chapattis next to it.
Children immediately ran off and began digging, but Sandya’s was one of the first proper latrines to be built. She spent 700 rupees on it, and thinks it is worth every paise. Diarrhoea rates in the area have dropped dramatically, and more children are going to school (studies have shown that latrines can increase school attendance, particularly among girls, by up to 20 per cent).
Sandya has done her sums. She knows that good sanitation adds up. If only the politicians holding the purse strings could figure it out too.
Rose George’s book “The Big Necessity: Adventures in the World of Human Waste” is published by Portobello Books (£12.99)